Living in Qatar with children: the pros and cons
It’s the world’s richest country with plenty of opportunities – but should you move there with a family? Here’s advice from a mother who did …
One Saturday afternoon a few months into our family adventure in Qatar, I asked the kids what they would like to do.
My daughter, then aged three, piped up: “I want to go to the souq.”
I was momentarily smug, thinking all the tears, chaos and confusion that had accompanied our move here had been worth it; my children were already so imbued in their international experience that they chose a cultural trip to the bazaar over watching Octonauts DVDs.
“We want to see the men who give us free sweets,” she added, rapidly bringing me back down to earth.
We did go to the souq that afternoon and, as usual, the kids – Imogen, now six, and Rory, four – had chocolates and even money pressed into their palms.
Rory and Imogen get a lift, Qatar-style
For families with young ones, there are aspects of life in Qatar which can make it an easy and enjoyable place to be. Here are the top five.
They love children
Children can be covered in chocolate, missing a shoe and in the midst of a full-on screaming tantrum and no one really bothers. A kindly lady might ply them with packets of crisps, whisk them off for a cuddle and sing to them, then the tears are gone. There’s no tutting or under-the-breath muttering about your hapless parenting skills.
If you or your spouse works in the public or semi-public sectors then the working day starts and finishes early, between 3 and 4pm, which frees up the rest of the afternoon for family time. The opportunity to work full-time yet still be available to oversee homework and have dinner with your loved ones can be a huge plus, and this is one of the “pros” of living in Qatar most often cited by expats lucky enough to have this deal.
Many expats choose to live on compounds, gated residential communities which often have facilities such as a swimming pool, gym and playground. These allow for a 1970s-style childhood where kids can safely play out in the street, biking between houses, building dens, playing hopscotch on the road and running naked though the sprinklers. While they may not be as streetwise as their British peers, it also means they seem to grow up a bit more slowly, holding on to their innocence and naiveté about life just a little longer, which I cherish.
No income tax
This is an obvious bonus of life in Qatar for British expats. Depending on your priorities, a tax-free salary either allows you to have the luxurious lifestyle you couldn’t afford in the UK, or to get some savings stashed away and to financially plan for the future, which we struggled to achieve in London.
Descending into Doha: it’s a great gateway for exploring the rest of the Gulf (JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Having a bit more disposable income, combined with Qatar’s location, also makes trips to exotic locations more possible. The Maldives, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka are all popular destinations for getaways, while the rest of the Gulf is only an hour or so’s flight away. Or be brave and make use of your SUV to take a road trip through Saudi to neighbouring Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Oman.
However, there are downsides to family life here too. While there is lots about Qatar that I love, it is not without its frustrations. Below are five of the most common complaints raised when I asked other expats their views on life here.
A recent study by InterNations found Qatar to be one of the worst places globally to bring up children, citing trials with the education system, which is one of Qatar’s biggest issues for expats and Qataris.
Unless you work for the government and speak Arabic, expat children are generally not permitted to attend state-funded local schools. Doha has some excellent private, international schools, but they are hugely over-subscribed and some have waiting lists of two years or more. The continuing immigration boom is unlikely to see demand for places drop any time soon, and for many there is no option but to homeschool.
Qatar is a desert, so obviously it gets hot. So hot “it burns my bones”, my son said. Summer temperatures, which last for nearly six months, can nudge 50 degrees and even long-term expats – and Qataris – escape to cooler climes during mid-summer if they possibly can.
This year there have also been several significant haboob or dust storms, which coat the country in a disgusting film of orange-beige. While it looks horrible, it also has serious health implications. Doha is one of the most polluted cities globally, according to the World Health Organisation. Sinusitis and other allergies are rife, while asthma sufferers also need to take care.
It gets hot and polluted in this concrete jungle, with green spaces few and far between (Francois Nel/Getty Images)
Cost of living
Some things – notably petrol – are cheap. Rent is very expensive, and is going up all the time. An average four-bedroom villa on a compound in Doha now costs around £3,500 a month. A recent Qatar government study found that expats spend 40 percent of their total income on rent.
Qatar has one of the world’s highest road death figures per capita. Rear seat belts and child seats in cars are not mandatory, and children can quite often be seen standing with their heads sticking out the sun roof while being driven at 70mph down the expressway. The driving style is a dangerous blend of impatience, aggression and gormlessness. At high speeds, in a powerful SUV, this can be frightening and infuriating.
Lack of green
My first impression of Doha was that it was unremittingly beige and dusty. Doha Municipality does have an urban parks programme to create pockets of green space for local communities, and there are ambitious plans for a huge park in the centre of the capital. But Doha is not green. And, apart from family, greenery is one of the things I miss the most.
Lesley Walker is a British journalist who has lived and worked in Qatar since January 2012